Lord Craigavon's silver donated to Ulster Museum

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Lord Craigavon
Image caption,
Lord Craigavon is one of the most controversial figures in NI's past

For decades it has been hidden from view in boxes at Stormont, home of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Now a treasure trove of silver artefacts presented to Lord Craigavon, Northern Ireland's first Prime Minister, is to be donated by his family to the Ulster Museum.

Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kinahan, who valued the silver when he worked for the auction house Christie's in the 1980's, said it was "probably the most important collection of silver from the history of Northern Ireland."

Historian Dr Eamon Phoenix said the collection was "breathtaking."

"It reflects the the light and shades of Craigavon's career. The man who opposed Home Rule; the prominent Belfast businessman; the stockbroker; the Larne gunrunner, really it is all here," he said.

Lord Craigavon, who is buried at Stormont, is one of the most controversial figures from Northern Ireland's past.

A hero to unionists because of his dogged "not an inch" defence of the boundary of the new state at the time of partition, he is equally reviled by nationalists.

He famously said: "All I boast of is that we are a Protestant parliament and a Protestant State."

The centrepiece of the collection is a Silver Celtic Cup presented to Craig in 1925 by both Houses of the Northern Ireland Parliament.

"What makes this cup unique historically is the inscribed signatures of so many of the unionist cabinet and border leaders of unionism, " says Eamon Phoenix.

Image caption,
Family silver: a selection of Lord Craigavon's silver which lay in boxes at Stormont

"You have here Lord Londonderry, Minister of Education; Hugh Pollock, Minister of Finance; Lord Charlemont who was a landlord on the border.

"All of these people are here, their signatures inscribed forever on this cup which really marked Craigavon's zenith of achievement in 1925.

"He had saved Northern Ireland against all the toils of the Treaty, the Irish Civil War and pressure from Dublin and London to hand over the border counties to the new Free State."

Another highlight of the collection is an 18in policeman's baton marking the UVF gun running at Larne in April 1914.

It carries a silver mount with the inscription: "God helps those who help themselves."

The collection includes a set of forty George V Irish silver plates inscribed with the Craig crest and carrying the names of polling districts in his constituency, as well as silver presentation keys and trowels to mark his opening of orange, church and town halls from Castlerock to Kilkeel.

Image caption,
The policeman's baton with the inscription: "God helps those who help themselves"

"I think the great thing about this collection is that it reflects the wealth of the unionist ruling class at the beginning of partition when local industries such as Harland and Wolff and Gallagher's were locally owned before the decline of traditional industry.

"You had a lot of wealth there. They were not presenting just a cut glass bowl. They are presenting the very best of fine Irish silver with the suitable mottos inscribed."

Danny Kinahan has refused to put a monetary value on the collection.

He said that when similar items went to auction at places like Lissadell House in County Sligo during the Celtic Tiger years they were making 15 or 20 times the estimate because they were important to the history of the country.

"There has been a trend over the past few years in auctions throughout Ireland," he said.

"They originally started selling just Irish memorabilia. Now they are selling Northern Irish and Ulster pieces and people are buying them.

"It is all part of our joint history. And there are a lot of people who want bits of it. It will be of great interest.

"The first time I saw it I was literally working in boxes and now, to see it all spread out properly on a table is fantastic."

Unionist and Nationalist politicians recently clashed when they debated Lord Craigavon to mark the 70th anniversary of his death.

His statue overlooks the Great Hall at Parliament Buildings.

Now the reappearance of this collection which was loaned to the Stormont authorities many years ago by Lord Craigavon's family looks set to resume the debate over his legacy.

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